Booking a Charter
Some Common Misconceptions of charter flights are that:
The principal difference between chartered and scheduled flights is that with charters you deal directly not with airlines but with entities known as wholesale tour operators. Tour operators charter entire planes or segments of planes from airlines to fly specific routes at specific times. They set fares and sell tickets either through their own retail outlets, through travel agents (the most common form of distribution), or through discount dealerships.
The main advantage of charter flights is price. Although fares fluctuate considerably between and within seasons, charters usually cost from $50-$200 less than the lowest round-trip excursion fare on a scheduled airline. Geared to day-by-day changes in travel patterns, charter fares run slightly lower on off-days and slightly higher on holiday weekends.
Larger tour operators with many flights to different places sell half round-trips (one-way tickets) that permit you to fly to one destination and return from another. Two half round-trips cost only slightly more than one "whole" round-trip. Other large operators even allow some flexibility for altering your return trip, although this privilege cannot be counted upon on every charter. Charters often provide the only nonstop or direct service overseas from interior cities.
Along with the many pluses, charters also have serious drawbacks, some of which can be overcome by smart shopping, while others are subject to the luck of the draw.
Rights Of Passage
Despite the drawbacks described above, charter passengers are not completely unprotected. If the tour operator cancels the trip ten days or more before the departure date, passengers must be notified in writing and receive a refund within fourteen days. Similarly, if a major change is made more than ten days before departure (i.e., an increase in the fare that exceeds 10 percent, change in the itinerary), passengers have seven days in which to cancel, and the operator has fourteen days in which to send a full refund. Tour operators can't raise fares within ten days of departure, but they are allowed to reschedule flight times by as much as forty-eight hours without penalty.
The Charter Experience
In and of itself, the charter-flight experience has caused many an otherwise intrepid traveler to vow "never again."
Fear Of Failure
There is a real possibility that the charter airline or tour operator will declare bankruptcy before or during your trip. It happens almost every year. Airline failure is less common and less disastrous. The tour operator probably still has the money passengers paid (he or she is obliged to keep it in an escrow account until the flight) and can make arrangements with another airline. A failure that occurs during a trip might necessitate a few days' delay while alternative arrangements are made, but it probably won't cost additional money.
Tour-operator failure is more common and more serious. Tour operators are required to post performance bonds and place payments for flights in escrow accounts earmarked for air travel. If the operator fails before you depart, you should be able to get your money back. This is hardly an ironclad guarantee, because the performance bond seldom covers the entire cost of chartering the aircraft.
If the tour operator fails during your trip, you may be at least temporarily stranded. In a worst-case scenario, the charter airline refuses to carry you because the tour operator hasn't paid them. No other charter or scheduled carrier is obligated to honor the ticket or has anything to gain by doing so. You are then faced with a delay of perhaps several days, the increased expense of obtaining another ticket, and little likelihood of ever receiving a full refund. Eventually the tour operator or airline may rescue you with some alternative arrangement. But this could take several days and if you're in a hurry to get back, you may have to pay the price.
If you have qualms about a tour operator's reliability or solvency, contact your local Better Business Bureau. To find out whether any enforcement complaints have been lodged against a tour operator or charter airline, contact the Department of Transportation in Washington, DC, at 202-755-2220.
Whenever possible, pay for charter flights with charge cards. In case of problems later, you can withhold payment or try to get a refund through the charge-card company.
If you can't put it on plastic, make sure your check is made out to the escrow or trust account U.S. operators are legally required to establish for each charter program. If you make the check payable to the individual tour operator, you diminish your chances of receiving a refund in case of failure.
To protect yourself against airline or operator failure, you can buy "travel protection" or "trip interruption" insurance from a travel agent or tour operator. Insurance costs around $5 per $100 of protection, but some travel agencies offer it as a free perk for buying through them.
In any event, when flying a charter be sure to have the financial wherewithal-charge card, traveler's check, cash-to buy your way home in an emergency.
Choosing A Charter
Travel agents receive listings of all charter flights and can book space on any of them. But charters are not a travel agency's favorite kind of business. Because fares are lower, commissions are lower. Charter flights are not computerized, so agents must check them out through brochures and book them over the phone. Since agents must work harder to make less money booking a charter, they tend to be relatively uninformed and negative about them.
If you decide to fly a charter, your best bet is to track it down yourself and have an agent write the ticket. This is more than merely convenient. In some cases of failures by charter carriers or tour operators, tickets purchased through accredited agencies have received priority refunds.
Charters advertise widely during the months preceding flights. Check out local newspapers and the Sunday travel section of the paper in your most convenient gateway city-the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and others.
The following travel agencies handle charters and tours to Southeast Asia: